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Not Playing by the Rules: Genre Mash-Ups in a New Age by Alicia Kat Vancil

Mash What’s?

Steampunk adventure. Paranormal romance. Alternative history. We don’t bat an eye at these genres now, but at one point not too long ago they didn’t even exist. Some enterprising author had to be the first person to come up with story ideas that fell outside the boundaries of the established genres at the time. And even though they were essentially creating a new genre from scratch, it probably wasn’t their goal from the start.
The idea of genre mashing isn’t new. In fact, movies, anime, and comics have been doing it for years. In the realm of publishing we call this combining of established genres novel mashups, and much to the ire of some, it’s here to stay. But what is a novel mashup, you might be asking yourself as you dart nervous looks to your peers to make sure you aren’t missing something terribly important. A novel mashup is simply a story where two or more types of literary genres are combined together. Like a fairy tale set in a dystopian future (Cinder) or a classic with a twist like Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. However, novel mashups should not be confused with parody novels such as Bored of the Rings, The Hunger Pains, or Nightlight.
So now that you understand what mashups are, let’s take a look at a few different types of novel mashups that you could explore.

Classics with a Twist

The popularity of this type of mashup hit the publishing scene in 2009 with the release of Seth Grahame-Smith’s wildly successful novel Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. This success went on to spawn a plethora of clever and sometimes cheeky takes on classic lit. This type of novel mashup is mainly comprised of classic or public domain works that have been cleverly altered to tell a new story. And whereas some see it as a brilliant way to draw new readers to older works, others steadfastly claim it’s a travesty to the literary word. Whatever your opinion on the subject, the altered classic is here to stay and might be something to try your hand at.

Same Story, New Setting

The novel mashup isn’t confined to the “classics.” Really any pre-existing story can become a new novel mashup with a simple setting change. Television shows and movies like Sherlock or Beastly, as well as books like Cinder or Mystic City are breathing new life into old stories by changing the setting of the original story. Even Disney isn’t a stranger to this concept. In fact they set their animated film Treasure Planet—a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's, Treasure Island—in a quasi-steampunk future. However, the most interesting thing about this type of novel mashup is that even if you chose the same work of fiction and use the same setting treatment you won't get the exact same story as someone else. 10 Things I hate about You and Kiss Me Kate are both modern adaptations of Taming of Shrew, but they both offer a unique and interesting take on the original Shakespearean play.

Genre Binding Alchemy

Not all novel mashups have to start out with a pre-existing story as its base, in fact this category of mashup is comprised of pairing two genres together. This is arguably the most widely used type of novel mashups, which might lead you to believe that everything cool has already been done and beaten to a pulp. But just remember that at one time, hugely popular shows like X-Files and Supernatural were considered new and unusual genre mashups. And though very similar (they are both essentially detective stories) they combined different secondary genres (detective and SciFi for X-Files and detective and paranormal/supernatural for Supernatural) to make something fresh and exciting. That is to say that just because someone else has written an alien western doesn’t mean you can't offer a new and different take on the mashup.

New Genre Mixer Party

Sometimes when you prepare to release your book you realize that all of the current fiction genres really aren’t a great fit for your story. That’s what happened with my Marked Ones Trilogy. The trilogy has action, romance, a race of horned non-human characters, super tech, ninja assassins, genetic engineering, new adult drama, and a dash of complex social issues tossed into the mix. All of these are, for the most part, SciFi topics. But there’s just one problem, the story isn’t dystopian and it’s not set in an alternative reality or the far flung future, it’s set in the current. Which means the SciFi sub genres of dystopian, cyberpunk, and alt history are pretty much out. So you can see the headache I was facing when selecting a genre for the series. My solution? To just make up a new genre—urban SciFi. Because essentially the only real difference between my story and urban fantasy is that mine was SciFi, and not Fantasy. What I’m trying to say here is that you shouldn’t be afraid to make up a whole new genre for your books if the current established genres and sub genres aren’t the right fit.

To Infinity and Beyond!

The most important thing to remember is that genres are merely a tool to help writers tell a good story. Genre should be the shiny box you place your story in to help lovers of said genre find it, not the glue that is holding the story together. Furthermore, you should never feel like everything worth doing has already been done. Just because the bare bones of your story is similar to something already out there, that doesn’t make your story a knockoff. Inception and Ocean's 11 are both essentially heist stories, but no one in their right mind would ever claim they were the same story. So go out there and share your bit of awesome with the world. Who knows, you might just create the next big thing.

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This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. Alicia, how do you choose a new genre in Amazon? With my books, I keep gravitating toward “Other” for lack of a better fit in the categories Amazon offers.

    Thank you for the info! This is a topic I’m really interested in.

    1. I pick one of the higher sub genres such as Science Fiction and then make sure I add the appropriate keywords. Because Amazon uses BISAC codes for KDP, which you will notice are missing some important sub genres and age categories, you will have to included the right keywords to even get your book in the right categories on Amazon. For example, there are only currently 13 sub-genres of SciFi in BISAC code and two of them were only added in 2013. Luckily Amazon was kind enough to offer keyword tables on their site to help you select the right keywords to get you books placed appropriately. You can find them here: https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A200PDGPEIQX41

      Basically as far as we know Amazon chooses to add new categories on their site when enough authors are consistently using the same keywords for their books. I’m fairly certain that’s how “Young Adult” and “New Adult” were added. Sadly NA is only currently available through the Romance section so us NA spec-fic writers are kinda out of luck at the moment. But this is also why I adamantly continue to use “New Adult” and “Urban Science Fiction” as keywords for my books, because if enough people do they will become available options for books on Amazon.

      Lastly, I hate to say it but choosing “other” is often worse for your book than choosing something that doesn’t fit.

    2. LOL, “other” is definitely not the way to go! But I had no idea that Amazon could potentially add new categories based on keywords–that is great info to know! Thanks so much for taking the time to explain that!

  2. Hey Kat, do you try to overcome the dreaded categories on the vendor sites by using specific keywords? Or do you express your mashup (contemporary romance meets sci fi or whatever) in your book description?

  3. Great presentation! I have felt this way for a long time and said as much to others to a loud chorus of guffaws. It is nice to hear it from someone with cred. I was starting to think that maybe I was wrong.

    1. Thanks Rabbit =^.^=

      If history has proven anything it’s that new ideas and views are always met with criticism, mockery, and sometimes out right hate. So stay strong and fight the good fight. Eventually whatever they were resistant toward will hit the mainstream and they’ll pretend they were on board all along.

      P.S. your handle isn’t referencing Usagi Yojimbo is it by chance?

  4. I personally love mashups in my books, movies and any adventures by day dreams. I believe certain genres have more than others but it really has to be done well so that no particular one overshadows the true genre of the bool. Readers tend to be rather loyal to the types of stories they love and horror movie with a sappy out of place love scene could totally turn you off.

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